Did too many enemas kill Napoleon?

By Richard Ingham

Paris - The enduring mystery surrounding the demise of Napoleon Bonaparte has just been given another twist.

The official verdict, supported by an autopsy, was that l'Empereur died of stomach cancer on May 5, 1821, at the age of 51, while in exile on Britain's south Atlantic island colony of St Helena.

But French conspiracy theorists suspect that Napoleon was slowly poisoned, either by the British - true to their perfidious nature - or by his confidant, Count Charles de Montholon, who was supposedly in the pay of French royalists opposed to the emperor's return to France.

The scientific evidence for this is a chemical analysis conducted in 2001 on a lock of hair cut from Napoleon's hair after his death that found huge traces of arsenic.

But, according to next Saturday's issue of the British weekly New Scientist, all are wrong.

"Medical misadventure" by Napoleon's over-enthusiastic doctors was to blame, according to forensic pathologist Steven Karch at the San Francisco Medical Examiner's Department.

Every day, the doctors gave Napoleon an enema to relieve his symptoms of a sick stomach and intestinal cramping.

"They used really big, nasty syringe-shaped things," Karch says lyrically.

This, combined with regular doses of a chemical called antimony potassium tartrate to induce vomiting, would have left poor Boney perilously short of potassium.

This can lead to a lethal heart condition known in English as in French as "torsades de pointes" in which the blood flow to the brain is disrupted by bursts of irregular heartbeats.

Karch's theory is that any arsenic in Napoleon's body that may have come from smoke or other environmental sources would have made him more vulnerable to torsades.

But that on its own would not have sent him to meet his maker.

Instead, the final straw would have been a massive 600-milligram dose of a purgative, mercuric chloride, which would have sent his potassium levels plummeting. Napoleon drew his last breath only two days after this brutal treatment.

So has the arsenic puzzle been replaced by another mystery - the riddle of the sphincter?

Emphatically not, says Phil Corso, a retired Connecticut doctor, who is an outspoken advocate of the cancer theory.

"It's really far-fetched when you think about it," Corso says, pointing out that Napoleon had clearly been sick for some time and would have died from his tumour regardless of the treatment.

The autopsy was carried out by Napoleon's personal doctor, Francesco Antommarchi, and was observed by five British physicians.

In October 2002, the conspiracy theory was given a knock by the French publication Science Et Vie (Science And Life) which took arsenic readings from 19 hairs taken from Napoleon in 1805, 1814 - before he went into exile - and in 1821.

All the samples contained massive doses of arsenic, ranging from 15 to 100 parts per million (ppm), compared with a normal level of only 0.8 ppm of arsenic. The maximum limit considered safe is three ppm.

The most plausible source for this was hair restorer, a product that in the early 19th century typically contained lots of arsenic.

In 1840, Napoleon's remains were taken back to Paris, where he lies buried in a vast marble tomb beneath the gilt dome of the Invalides military hospital.

Even then, the conspiracy theorists are still vocal.

A small group, led by lawyer Bruno Roy-Henry, believe that the British switched the bodies for a laugh, gulling the French into burying a Bonaparte lookalike. - Sapa-AFP

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